With all the snow and freezing weather we've experienced this winter you could be forgiven for thinking that the Kitchen Garden must be empty at this time of year. Yet despite overnight temperatures as low as -13oC there is still plenty to harvest!
Although it is too cold for most veg to be growing, some mature crops will happily ‘stand' in the ground without spoiling or succumbing to frost damage. The brassica or cabbage family tend to be a hardy lot, kale being the king of the cold crops. Red or green curly kale looks beautiful on a frosty winter's day but the slim, dark leaves of ‘Nero di Toscana' are particularly flavoursome. In spring tender sideshoots emerge which can be eaten whole.
Thanks to their association with Christmas dinner, sprouts are one of the veg people always associate with winter; modern F1 varieties such as ‘Bosworth' tend to be the hardiest. Purple sprouting broccoli will give excellent late winter crops. For similar tasty shoots try ‘Nine Star Perennial' - technically this is classed as a cauliflower but behaves like sprouting broccoli and has the advantage of being a short-lived perennial.
Winter cabbages and the wrinkle-leaved savoys are the best choices for a late crop of cabbages. Like kale, sprouts and sprouting broccoli, winter cabbages should be sown around April so with brassicas you're in it for the long run. If you only have a small plot, tying up valuable space for so long may not be feasible but if you garden on a bigger scale, plan ahead and think how welcome those winter crops will be!
My other two staples in the winter veg garden are leeks and parsnips. The outer leaves of leeks can look a bit forlorn after snow but varieties like ‘Bandit' and ‘Porbella' should stand up to cold weather well. The main problem with leeks and parsnips can often be extracting them from the ground on a frosty morning. To overcome this try covering a small area with loose straw so that the soil is insulated.
American landcress, winter purslane and pak choi all emerged from the snows in pristine condition - a valuable resource for winter salads and stirfries.
More borderline plants are Swiss chard and perpetual spinach. Leaves will tend to die back in harder frosts but plants will usually survive to produce more growth in milder spells. Coloured varieties of chard look pretty but are the least hardy. Chicory and endive are a good source of winter salad although unprotected plants are vulnerable to deep frosts - outer leaves tend to be killed off but the inner heart of mature plants will often survive.
Some veg actually needs a good cold spell to help them do well the following season. Garlic is typically sown in the autumn to ensure it is exposed to low temperatures for a couple of months thus ensuring it forms good sized bulbs in spring. Rhubarb needs a cold winter to break its dormancy and stimulate vigorous spring leaf growth. Based on the weather so far we should expect at least two bumper harvests next year.
With thanks to Amy Lax, Productive Team at RHS Garden Harlow Carr